The term first popped up in the 1940’s, and since then it’s caused many a scratched head and confused query letter. What is speculative fiction? How can any one category tout both Superman and Offred as leading heroes? Welcome to the wonderfully weird world of speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction was first used to refer almost exclusively to science fiction. It has expanded well beyond, that, though, and now includes a host of the most popular and pervasive genres on today’s bookstore shelves. Genres that fall under the speculative fiction umbrella include:
Science fiction: Think Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey
Fantasy tales: A number of subgenres fall under this secondary umbrella, particularly urban fantasy, like the Amazon series, Carnival Row.
Dystopian fiction: You’ll find both The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale here.
Apocalyptic and post-Apocalyptic stories: Bring on the zombies, meteorites, and eco-disasters!
Supernatural horror: Not all horror belongs here. A home invasion isn’t speculative, but ghosts, ghouls, and things with teeth certainly go here.
Alternative history fiction: Yes, Inglorious Basterds makes this list.
Superhero stories: All your favorite Marvel and DC heroes and villains take shelter from critics under the speculative fiction umbrella!
There are two major themes in all speculative fiction. The first theme is a question: what if? While all fiction ultimately asks this question – What if someone died? What if someone fell in love? What if the wrong person died or fell in love? – speculative fiction asks bigger questions. These shift the world of the story and create a ‘speculative’ world.
What if humanity lived in space? What if we shared our planet with aliens from outer space? What if there were dragons? What if the world’s governments collapsed and a single warlord rose to prominence? What if fertile women were so rare they were kept as reproductive slaves by the elite? No matter how big the change, though, the question always boils down to ‘what if?’
A Step Beyond Reality
We already intimated the second theme of speculative fiction: going a step beyond reality. While there are plenty of political thrillers that ask what would happen if the president was shot, if a major nation faced a coup, if military contractors kept dark secrets, then are questions that fit in our world. These are all thing that not only could but have actually happened. They aren’t day to day events, but they don’t come close to pushing the limits of reality.
Speculative fiction begins in a world that is different from our own. Apocalyptic and dystopian fiction may draw from reality, but ultimately they create a new world far removed from our own. Generally, asking ‘what if the world ended?’ is a big enough question to always land you in speculative fiction territory, because we can only imagine what that would be like.
Most worlds of speculative fiction are pretty obvious. There are elves, zombies, gods, and monsters. Maybe there are aliens and spaceships that can travel faster than the speed of light. The ground itself may breathe, and the stars could speak. It’s all several good paces past reality.
What’s so wonderful about speculative fiction is that it can always grow another branch. Maybe you’ll be the one to dream up a new genre, or maybe you’ll find the perfect niche under this expansive umbrella’s shelter. We’re pretty sure you’ve at least visited one world beyond the usual before now. We hope you visit a few more!